19th April 2019
From the 27th to the 31st of March Silba conducted an election observation mission in Ukraine, observing the first round of the presidential election. Out of an excited team of 32 Silba members, 4 observers set out for Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast on the 29th of March curious to observe how the conflict in Donbas has affected democracy on the ground in the East.
Sloviansk is situated in the Donbas in Donetsk region were 4,4 million Ukrainians live (2013). In April 2014, the city was taken by pro-Russian separatists. During three months, heavy fighting and shelling occurred regularly forcing almost half of the population to flee. In the various offensives led to retake control of the town, the Ukrainian army lost approximately a hundred soldiers, several vehicles and helicopters. In early July 2014, Sloviansk was surrendered by the insurgents and the government's forces took back control of several cities including Kramatorsk and Kostiantynivka. Although difficult to estimate, up to 40 civilians were killed during the fightings or are still missing.
After having been warned by some Ukrainians about going to Sloviansk, we were pleased to arrive in a peaceful city on a sunny day. However, we soon enough came across bullet holes in buildings in the city centre and ruins from the fighting that took place in 2014 to get reminded exactly why it was important that Silba was present in this part of the country.
Immediately after arriving in Sloviansk, we met up with two representatives from the NGO ‘Black Tulip’. While the group has been active since the early 2000s, they originally worked on retrieving and identifying bodies left behind after World War II, and its current focus is the ongoing conflict in Donbas. Today, people are retrieving only recently lost their lives. They fought in a war still going on, with no clear end in sight. They are family members whose deaths leave behind a trail of suffering not seen since those violent years in the 1940s.
The volunteers from Black Tulip shared the heart-breaking story of a local family fighting to bring back their young son who was killed – and left behind – in battle. They want more than anything for his body to be retrieved, identified and given a proper burial. Black Tulip does their best to help them – as well as countless other families who lost a loved one. But the frontline has hardened. They told us how it’s getting harder and harder to cross into the non-governmentally controlled areas. The conflict has no time for empathy. The bodies of soldiers killed in battle are left behind, nameless. And on each side of the frontline, loved ones are waiting for them to return.
One way in which the conflict has had a direct effect on the election concerns the 1,4 million who have crossed the frontline without a return, now living across all parts of Ukraine. Ukrainians’ right to vote, as well as access to social security, is connected to their registered home address. Internally displaced people (IDPs) wishing to vote had to register at a new or temporary address before 25th of March. We saw IDPs turning up to vote with their special confirmation of registration papers at hand. Yet, we also observed some voters being turned away because they were not registered, reflecting this issue.
However, besides this, we experienced the voting procedure in Sloviansk as peaceful and unproblematic on the 31st of March. Polling stations had up to 25 well-trained officials who made sure the ballots were signed and the secrecy of the vote protected. During the day we spotted both police officers and a military guard. It was our impression that they acted professionally at all times.
At the end of the day, one of the teams in Sloviansk witnessed a counting procedure that was not entirely by the book. The chairwoman was hostile towards the observers who were prevented from observing during the signing of the protocol and refused a copy of the final protocol. In this station, the polling station officials acted partisan during the voting over whether ballots were spilt or not by systematically accepting votes for the candidate Boiko. Ballots indicating voting for other candidates with unusual marks or drawings were rarely accepted as valid. In addition, the chaotic counting procedure resulted in 108 votes to Zilensky first being miscounted and placed in Boiko's bunch. This was discovered and solved during the recount.
As was the case above, many residents of Sloviansk voted in favour of Yuriy Boiko. He is the candidate for the pro-Russian party “Za Zhyttia”, or “For Life”, which promises to end the war immediately and unconditionally. Before the Revolution of Dignity in 2014, as the Maidan Revolution is called nowadays, Ukraine could more easily be divided along a pro-Russian and pro-Western line. Since the annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas, most Ukrainians favour the European Union over Moscow geopolitically. In the Donbas however, the majority of people still vote in favour of parties that fight for the interests of the Russian speakers in the East. This does not necessarily mean that the inhabitants are in favour of the Russian annexation of the Donbas. Yet, the locals simply seem to be sick of the war and want it to end, no matter how.
Correspondingly, we noticed that current Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko did not receive a lot of votes in Sloviansk. The voting behaviour of the residents of Sloviansk could be interpreted as the locals believing that the key to ending the war in the Donbas lies in Moscow, and not in Brussels, although the vast majority of Ukrainian voters does not seem to agree with them on this issue.
“We are not Russia. Our choices must be made with a choice.” A car with this message was spotted on election day.
On our final day in Slovyansk, Black Tulip promised to give us a ride to the train station. We agreed, not thinking more of it. When the vehicle pulled up, however, we realised that this was the very car they use to retrieve bodies from the frontline. It looked like any other van. Like it could be used for carrying mail, or maybe for a craftsman to keep his tools in. Except for the simple cross on its side, and the two stretchers in the back. In our case, we could take the car to the train station, eventually returning to Kyiv, leaving the violence behind. For the people usually transported by Black Tulip, however, the reality is entirely different.